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Book Review – The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Synopsis:  When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.

Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the Ottoman Annex, Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Lauras grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her familys history that reveals love, lossand a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.

First Line:  When my twin brother and I were small children, we would take turns sitting on our grandfather’s lap.

Random Quote:  She supposes she knows what it means that beds have opened up.  Those children were not reconciled with their parents, nor were they found new homes.  Almost certainly they died.  Is it possible they were so sickly that they, too, were put onto that nightmarish bier that rolled along the edge of the square the other night?

Review:  I like Chris Bohjalian.  His first book, Midwives, is a book I’ve read several times over.  I even have my original copy!  I’ve touched base with him off and on, dipping my feet into his waters, sometimes disappointed, many times not.  The Sandcastle Girls is the first of his novels that I’ve read in a long time.  While the book has its flaws, its strengths far outweigh them.

I very much liked the historical story in the book.  Bohjalian is a truth-teller, but his language and ability to describe even the most horrible of sights in nuanced detail make this a standout book.  The characters and the relationship between them and the events they are caught up in are clearly written, the plot keeps you reading – even through some truly awful events.  I cared less about the modern part of the story and sort of wondered why it was even there.  It felt like an add-on that got forgotten during the writing of the real story.  Despite this flaw, I very much enjoyed this book (although enjoyed seems like an odd word choice).  Not for the faint of heart, but worth reading.There is a deeply personal element to this book – an Armenian-American author exploring the Armenian genocide during and after World War I (ain’t war grand).  During this time period the Ottoman empire exterminated between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians. It is considered one of the first modern (meaning 20th century) genocides and, in fact, the word genocide was coined to describe these events.  Much like the Assyrian genocide that occurred during the same time period, most Americans don’t know much about it despite the number of people killed and the relationship between the Ottoman Empire‘s techniques and Hitler’s techniques which almost certainly were refined and drawn from this historical event.

FTC Disclosure:  Advance copy from publisher for review

Publishing Information:  Doubleday – July 17, 2012

Format:  Hardcover

Rating:

Reading Challenges:  War Thru the Generations Challenge – WWI

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